Georges Lemaître and the case for Catholic education

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How a Catholic priest invented the Big Bang theory

For many years, modern physicists thought that the universe had neither a beginning nor an end. Then Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest, turned all these ideas on their head.

Georges Lemaître
Father Georges Lemaître

Born in 1894, Lemaître studied at a Jesuit secondary school, the Collège du Sacré-Coeur, in Charleroi, France. He went on to study civil engineering in the Catholic University of Leuven. After serving with distinction as an artillery officer during World War I, Lemaître, a man of faith, returned home and entered the seminary, studying to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Malines. But Lemaître never lost his interest in physics. After he was ordained in 1923, his bishop sent Lemaître to study math and science at Cambridge, Harvard and MIT.

It might seem odd to us that the church would have a priest study math and science. Many people think science and faith have nothing to do with one another. Some even think that they are opposed. The church, however, has never believed this. On the contrary, the church believes that all truth is God’s truth. That is why great students of faith like St. Thomas Aquinas have demonstrated interest in disciplines like philosophy and the natural sciences. When Lemaître’s bishop decided to send him to teach and study physics, he would have remembered how the First Vatican Council echoed the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, declaring that God “can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.”

So Georges Lemaître continued his work in physics, applying Einstein’s general theory of relativity to astrophysics. While Einstein held to the view, common at the time, that the universe was static, Lemaître used observations about the light emitted from distant galaxies to argue that the universe was expanding and had its origin in a single point.

At first, Lemaître’s theory was rejected and given a dismissive nickname: the “Big Bang theory.” However, as he provided more and more evidence, Lemaître won over other physicists including Albert Einstein. Now the Big Bang theory has become broadly accepted and continues to helpfully inform astrophysics.

Lemaître’s work provides a powerful argument for a Catholic education. Years of Catholic school informed Lemaître’s work. A good Catholic education teaches reverence for how creation reveals God’s providence. It also fosters a Catholic imagination. In other words, it teaches us to see the world through a lens informed by Scripture and tradition.

Lemaître would have known that Genesis shows God creating with the words “Let there be light.” Where other physicists might think Scripture speaks only to faith and morals, Lemaître let it inform his imagination. When he looked at evidence showing an expanding universe, he could see the pattern revealing a single explosion of light and energy at the beginning of time.

The church invests in Catholic schools because she intends to form millions more like Georges Lemaître and send them on a lifelong search for truth informed by the church’s tradition. As Catholics, we have an obligation to help ensure that the schools founded by people of faith retain and strengthen their distinctively Catholic identity so that they might educate people who use what they learn to transform our world into a place better prepared to receive the truth of Christ. If you are curious about Catholic schools in Western Washington, visit mycatholicschool.org.

Catholic education also goes beyond the school walls. It should be a joyful lifetime pursuit that brings us closer to God and helps us understand his creation. Whatever our age, our home parish teaches us through worship, study, prayer, and learning, as part of a community, how to express our love for Jesus by caring for him in our family and our neighbors. Check out your home parish’s adult education offerings. If you want to go deeper, consider registering for the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Catechetical Certification Program (seattlearchmedia.weebly.com/ccp).

Also, look to some of the excellent online resources such as the Augustine Institute’s formed.org, which many parishes make available free of charge. Another resource is the Magis Center’s online resources at magiscenter.com. Like Georges Lemaître, we should never stop exploring God in creation or his word.

Northwest Catholic - January/February 2019

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.